What if we’ve been playing Mario the wrong way this whole time?
I know what you’re thinking. Blasphemy. Madness! But the first time I touched finger to screen and an already-sprinting Mario leapt toward a rising plume of coins and nabbed them all, each collection resounding with that perfect ba-ding, I couldn’t help but consider this, a thought that puts the industry’s most famous character and his thirty year career into question.
Super Mario Run is a conundrum, alright. Here’s gaming’s aged-but-still-spry father figure leaping into the pool with all those young fresh faces. Nintendo went and dipped their toe into the mobile waters earlier this year with Miitomo, a kind-of social networking/messaging app that’s charming and fun but not really a game. With Super Mario Run, they’ve jumped in whole-hog, taking their most bankable star and squashing thirty-years of design lessons into a rounded square that sits next to your smartphone’s Mail icon.
You can play it with one hand, they say. Surely this mustn’t work. Surely this will be watered down, a surface-level cash-in, a pox on the name that launched a million happy Christmases. Mario has always been tougher than his cherubic visage would suggest; his games require dexterity and hand-eye coordination and patience. Later levels of most any traditional Super Mario Bros. game, or the more recent 3D variants, are steely tests of will. Those who say otherwise likely gave up long before the Thwomp-shaped gauntlet was thrown.
I’m stalling, trying to wrap my head around the thoughts bouncing in my head, mere hours after playing the first Super Mario game on a phone, an idea that to a certain generation of game-playing thirtysomethings has long been akin to horsemen falling from the sky and blowing their trumpets, a signal of The End. But look closer: What if those skyward misfits are not doomsayers but angels, heralding something else, something good… a new beginning?
Here’s what I know: So far, one thumb is enough. Mario dashes to the right. That first Goomba, normally a test to jump upon and smash? You vault over him automatically. But tap the screen and, ka-pow, you lift off the mushy thing and jump higher. Tap the screen mid-air and Mario twirls, adding distance and panache. What at first appears like a simple “endless-runner” reveals itself to be layered with nuance. You can jump, spin jump, vault jump, wall jump. Depending on environmental cues you can backflip, leap across chasms, slide down vertical cliffs, swing from trapeze rings. At a glance, Super Mario Run takes away all of the previous game’s player choice and boils it down into mist. With sustained attention, though, all that boiling has made a rich stock and I’m left wondering that initial first thought: Perhaps this is the way Mario’s always meant to be.
The fun is in the surprising level of challenge and that old time-worn test of Beating Your Friend’s Score. The main mode is World Tour, an approximation of the standard level progression we’ve seen since 1985’s original. Run to the right and jump on the flagpole in three levels before entering the castle where Bowser awaits. With six worlds, the asking price of $9.99 has been seen as high to many. Why pay a tenner for something so finite when most mobile games give me infinity for free?
That initial math is soon not so straightforward. Each level reveals itself to be three levels in one: Collecting each colored coin opens up a new remix of the same level with a new set of even-harder coins to collect. Even though there are only six worlds of four levels each, the three sets of collectibles mutate each offering enough such that you have 72, not 24, levels to master.
Beyond World Tour is Toad Rally, where you challenge other players across the globe to achieve a high score on a single level. Now your spinning and vaulting isn’t just for locomotion; each extra move adds points to your score, visually indicated by a growing audience of Toads cheering you on. There’s an easy synergy between the two modes: Going deeper in World Tour will force you to learn new maneuvers that, when used in Toad Rally, will let you nab more impressive results.
And successful bouts earn you Toad Tickets which you use to buy buildings in the third, supplemental Kingdom mode. This appears to be a simple shortcut to boasting and little else, a colorful shorthand for “Mine is Bigger than Yours.” Though its true depths could still be hidden away…
Maybe this is all just the mad chatter of a desert wanderer suffering sunstroke after being given their first sip of water in days. I’ve only played for a few hours today, along with countless others on its worldwide release across 150 countries. Super Mario Run is the strangest thing: At once familiar and entirely foreign, an object that can’t exist and yet there it is in your hand. That it works so well, so far, is throwing me for a loop. In a day or two, my mania might well pass into acceptance, or even boredom, as if this is how Mario has always been. The scary part is: perhaps it should never have not been this way in the first place.
Since 2003, Jon Irwin has been paid to write about film, techno, ice cream, wine, golf, drag-racing, French children and videogames. His first book, Super Mario Bros. 2, was published last year by Boss Fight Books. Follow along: @WinWinIrwin.